More on Singer, Utilitarianism, and Animal Rights

Jim has made the case that sentience is problematic as a ground for membership within the moral community, but Peter Singer-style Utilitarian arguments for animal rights are problematic for other reasons as well.  In this post I would like to address two other problems with Utilitarianism, one a general problem, and one a problem as it pertains to animal rights.

I don’t think it is going out on a limb to say that many people who study the empirical sciences and mathematics are attracted to Utilitarianism because, on the surface, it seems more rational than other ethical theories.  If I am a biology major and my only exposure to ethics is a two-week summary of Mill and Kant taught in an introductory philosophy course, it is unsurprising that that I might come to the conclusion that Utilitarianism is and should be the dominant paradigm for ethical reasoning.  After all, it has a great deal of intuitive appeal (don’t we all agree that it’s wrong to hurt people?), and it’s a lot simpler to understand than the Categorical Imperative.   More importantly, it seems objective.  Utilitarians talk of doing a “utility calculus” in order to determine whether a particular action is morally laudable.  It seems scientific because it is contingent upon as-yet-unknown information, and it seems fair because every person’s pleasure (or, for Singer, every being’s sentience) is given equal weight.

All of these virtues aside, however, Utilitarianism faces serious objections on a meta-ethical level.  This is because the foundation for Utilitarianism is an assertion about objective value that almost all non-Utilitarians reject and which Utilitarians have a great deal of trouble defending.  This is the argument:

Every person values his or her own happiness (pleasure and absence of pain).

Therefore, happiness is objectively valuable.

If something is objectively valuable, each person has a moral obligation to promote it.

Therefore, each of us has a moral obligation to promote happiness, whether it is our own or someone else’s.

The move from the uncontroversial descriptive observation that each of us values our own happiness to the moral proclamation that we ought to promote the happiness of others is an attempt to bridge the is/ought gap.   This is an inevitable part of every ethical theory, but I think the Utilitarians do an especially bad job with it.  The problem is the move from one individual valuing his own happiness to the objective value of happiness as such.  It is just not true that my happiness is valuable to people who don’t know me.  The fact that others value their own happiness gives them reason to promote their own own happiness, but it does not give them any reason to promote mine because, as a matter of fact, they do not value it.  So, when Utilitarians say that we have a moral obligation to promote universal happiness they are really making a prescriptive assertion (“Happiness is intrinsically valuable”) that is no more empirical and no less dogmatic than the commandments of Biblical Scripture.  The Millian Greatest Happiness Principle may be more appealing to modern university students than the orders of a dubiously existent creator, but it is no more true.

Having made note of the general problems of Utilitarianism, I now want to move on to Singer’s argument for animal rights.  As Jim has pointed out, the idea of animals being member of a moral community which gives them rights without correlative obligations is highly problematic.   I think some of this confusion is due to the fact that Utilitarians like Singer really can’t give an account of rights that is anywhere close to the commonplace use of the word.  In political terms, rights are generally seen as a sort of trump card.  If I have a right to something, that means others have a certain type of obligation to me- either to provide me with it (this is the case when we speak of a so called “positive” right such as health care or education) or, more narrowly, to refrain from interfering with my having it (this is the case when we speak of a so-called “negative” right such as a right to life or a right to bodily sovereignty).

Utilitarians believe that we all have a moral obligation to promote the greatest overall happiness, which means that they can make sense of all sorts of prima facie rules for moral action.  For example, the Utilitarian would say that we usually have a moral obligation to refrain from killing innocent people because this is likely to cause a great deal of suffering and not promote much happiness.  However, in those situations in which it would promote the greatest happiness (or prevent the most suffering) by killing an innocent person (imagine a bomb strapped to a baby crawling toward a crowded shopping plaza), it is not only morally permissible to kill an innocent, it is morally obligatory to do so.  This makes it hard to make sense of a moral “right” to life in way that we normally understand the term.  In Utilitarian terms, an innocent person’s “right” to life is entirely contingent upon whether killing him is likely to destroy more happiness than it creates.  The “right” is not a trump card.  It can’t even be used for the sake of an appeal because, if the Utilitarian is doing his calculus correctly, the innocent person’s happiness has already been counted as a factor and outweighed by the benefits of killing him.

The issue of animal rights is an obvious area of disagreement between Singer-style Utilitarians and most other philosophers, but, in my view, it derives from the fact that Singer-style Utilitarians can’t give a good account of rights in general.  Rights, as we generally understand them, track with a system of obligations within a society of persons.   Singer raises legitimate challenges to our notion of moral personhood by arguing that many within our society (infants, brain-dead humans, etc.) don’t seem to be capable of fulfilling obligations to others within the moral community and yet are protected legally (and most would say morally) as persons with rights.  It is difficult to pinpoint a reason for protecting these humans that is not based upon the arbitrary fact of their biology, but Singer’s conclusion that these beings are morally equivalent to other animals is just as arbitrary.  For Singer, all it means to have a right is to be worthy of consideration within the utility calculus, but that consideration is itself based upon the arbitrary assertion that happiness is objectively valuable.  Even if we could establish that animal pleasure and pain is relevantly identical to human pleasure and pain, I would have no more reason to value an animal’s happiness than to value the happiness of a complete stranger.  To my way of thinking, that’s not much of a reason at all.

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37 Responses to “More on Singer, Utilitarianism, and Animal Rights”

  1. Taylor Says:

    To begin: Peter Singer does not advocate (moral) rights for animals, human or non-human — precisely because he’s a utilitarian and rejects the idea of moral “trumps”. The classic (deontological) animal-rights argument is laid out by Tom Regan in The Case for Animal Rights.

    Jim makes the point that we can’t be sure that (non-human) animals feel pain. Of course, I can’t be sure that either of you feel pain. A few philosophers (e.g., Peter Carruthers, Peter Harrison) have pushed this notion re. animals, but both common sense and science, not to mention various related philosophical arguments, put the burden of proof on those who doubt the analogical argument for animal pain. Science strongly suggests that all vertebrates, plus at least cephalopods, can experience pain.

    Jim says, “We don’t judge lions eating gazelles as committing murder simply because we do not hold them to our moral standards.” Lions are not moral agents, but they and gazelles can be described as “moral patients”, like human infants and various mentally handicapped humans. “We only grant such rights to those individuals we hold morally accountable for their actions….” Nonsense. We grant legal rights to unaccountable humans and most people ascribe moral rights to them as well. Few people actually believe this silly idea that one has to be a moral agent in order to be a full member of the moral community. Perhaps the two of you are Hobbesian contractarians, or Ayn Rand adherents? Just about any other position requires including many non-humans in the moral community, based on the fundamental rational principle of treating like cases alike. (See “the argument from marginal cases”.)

    Attempts have been made (e.g., by Tibor Machan and Carl Cohen) to leave all animals outside the moral community while including humans who are not moral agents, based on the idea that mentally disabled humans are members of a kind (in this case the human species) whose typical members exhibit moral agency. But these attempts are, in my opinion, logically incoherent and have nonsensical implications, such as that since humans are living organisms and most living organisms are not sentient, humans should be treated like plants.

    As for evolution and morality, I highly recommend James Rachels’ Created from Animals: The Moral Implications of Darwinism.

    • Liza Says:

      We are not Randians nor Hobbesian Contractarians, though I sometimes find myself in agreement with the arguments of David Gauthier and neo-Hobbesians like him. I’m not sure why you think it is a silly idea that one has to be a moral agent to be a member of the moral community. If you reject the notion that there is some sort of self-apparent intrinsic and objective value to happiness, there aren’t that many other available options. Arguably, Rawlsian Contractualism has been the dominant paradigm in ethics for the last 40 years, and it relies heavily on the notion of a moral agent (albeit, a hypothetical one) as the foundation for all moral obligation.

      I didn’t address Tom Regan’s arguments here because the issue at stake was not all theories of animal rights but, specifically, Singer’s Utilitarian argument for animal rights. I find Singer’s arguments problematic for the reasons I laid out above. To be honest, I wish that I found Regan’s arguments more compelling. I happen to share his sentiments. I am personally revulsed by the idea of killing a person in a comatose state, the severely mentally retarded, and, yes, even animals. (As a matter of fact, I have been a lacto-vegetarian since I was 14.) Unfortunately, I don’t think his arguments hold up. Deontology divorced from Kant’s notion of rationality lacks any coherent metaphysical foundation. The argument that we protect non-rational humans and that, therefore, we should also protect other non-rational animals only holds up if you take seriously this idea that it is morally wrong to harm non-rational humans.

      I’m inclined to bite the bullet and just say it’s not really morally wrong to make sausages out of brain-dead people. There are lots of good explanations for why we have a strong instinctual abhorrence to it, but explaining why we feel that way is different from saying that there is a moral fact of the matter. Empathy is one of the great evolutionary advantages of our species. I would imagine that our awkward, two-legged, thin-skinned, clawless, ancestors wouldn’t have had nearly their success were it not for their keen ability to recognize members of their own kind and protect them. No doubt our ability to feel others’ pain as if it were our own is an important component of that. But the fact that we are inclined to protect creatures that look or sound like us says little about whether we SHOULD protect those that look and sound like us. This requires a separate argument, and, unfortunately, I haven’t heard any that are compelling.

      I’m going to let Jim respond to your comment about sentience and the argument by analogy.

    • Jim Says:

      As to the question of pain, the burden is not on someone who doubts the argument from analogy. In fact, as anyone who has taken an intro to phil of mind class should know, and what all my students definitely know, the argument from analogy is the weakest argument of the kind that could be made. You introspect and find some quale associated with and appearing to cause your external behavior. You then look around at other entities’ external behavior and reason that they must be feeling something analogous to what you feel. But your inductive argument in that case is reasoning to a general class from a single example. Moving from a singular to the general is the weakest inductive move one could make. It doesn’t work for cars, birds, or pens, and it most certainly does not work for mental states.
      As to your assertion that “Science strongly suggests that all vertebrates, plus at least cephalopods, can experience pain,” that’s just absurd. We don’t even know what pain is. Each time we move in closely we lose it. Moreover, whatever it might be, we certainly don’t see anything like it in neuroscience. Any number of prominent philosophers of science and mind, such as Dan Dennett, Paul Churchland, and Patritia Churchland, who literally wrote the book on neurophilosophy, among others, doubt that such a thing as pain even exists. Rather, it looks to be a theoretical entity in a naive and flawed folk theory of mind. If there are doubts that such a thing exists in our own minds, then we surely have no idea if such a thing exists in the minds of other animals.
      Liza has answered most of the other points, so I’ll just hit your last line to finish. I’ll quote myself from the post in question: “Any attempt to read a moral prescription off a naturalistic description is fallacious.” I went into detail on this in my post, and, as you haven’t responded to that at all beyond suggesting a book, I’ll leave it at that. If you can explain how you can deduce an ought from an is legitimately, you have my full attention.

      • Taylor Says:

        “Any number of prominent philosophers of science and mind, such as Dan Dennett, Paul Churchland, and Patritia Churchland, who literally wrote the book on neurophilosophy, among others, doubt that such a thing as pain even exists. Rather, it looks to be a theoretical entity in a naive and flawed folk theory of mind.”

        With all respect to you, only a philosopher could write something like that. I know exactly what (undesirable) pain is, but I don’t think it’s anything Patricia Churchland will be able to pin down in words or see under a microscope. I grant your theoretical doubts about our ability to reliably infer mental pain-states in others, but I find them quite unconvincing in practice. To paraphrase John Locke, “Enough already! Even though we may never be certain of anything, nature has given us adequate faculties by which to live, and to live, we have put doubt aside at some point.”

        I suspect that the idea of the “naturalistic fallacy”, as regards the alleged is/ought gap, is itself a fallacy. In other words, human moral values are intrinsically informed by, and inseparable from, natural facts about humans, including their species-specific needs, desires, and potentialities. Aristotle saw this, so did Darwin — and so did Marx in his way. We can’t solve the specific, fine-grained moral issues that typically confront us by reference to natural facts, but such facts may be useful in constructing our moral compass.

        Thanks for the conversation.

        • Jim Says:

          I suspect that most people don’t look closely at this stuff or have a clear idea of what they think the mind even is. Certainly most people aren’t aware of the variety of problems that exist with “common sense” notions of minds and mental states.
          I find your assertion that “I know exactly what (undesirable) pain is, but I don’t think it’s anything Patricia Churchland will be able to pin down in words or see under a microscope” odd when you’re pushing for a scientific understanding of pain and mental states in general. How is it scientific if it’s ephemeral and ineffable? Science requires testability and falsifiability. Those things aren’t possible if there is no way in principle to detect or even describe the thing in question. As to the doubts concerning the ontological status of mental states as traditionally conceived, that is not to say that there’s nothing going on. Rather, it is to suggest that likely what is going on is something different from what we thought before we examined it closely. Every other naive framework has fallen before the rigors of scientific examination. How odd would it be that the theory of mind conceived in piecemeal thousands of years ago just happened to nail what’s going on in our brains?
          As to the suggestion that the is/ought fallacy is itself fallacious, that’s nonsense. Lots of species use forced sex as a means of procreating, and it works fine as an evolutionary strategy. As such, it certainly is not inconceivable that rape would work for us. The same is true for killing the offspring of rivals, killing a mate and eating it for food, or any number of other behaviors exhibited by other animals. To in any way suggest, however, that such actions are good, right, or whatever you want to call it, to suggest that such things are what should be done, is clearly unwarranted. Even in our species cuckolding is a fantastic strategy, yet I think you would be hard pressed to find something who thinks that’s what someone should do. And that’s the whole point. You cannot deduce an ought from an is. That’s not philosopher’s jargon; that’s just a big “duh.”
          And, for the record, I don’t see where Darwin ever said anything like we should determine what should be done by looking at what is done. Same goes for Aristotle. Regardless what you might have read, Arisototle’s virtue ethics in no way requires one to read should’s off is’s.
          Honestly, I think you’re confusing prudential imperatives with moral imperatives. I suspect you’re taking the should of the former and conflating it with the should of the latter. They are not the same thing, and such should be obvious to you once you examine it closely.

          • Taylor Says:

            A last comment from me. I quite agree with you that it makes no sense to read moral norms directly off “natural” behaviours like rape, cannibalism, or whatever. This very fact calls into question current attempts to justify continued exploitation of animals. As science and philosophy have increasingly undermined the traditional belief in a radical distinction between humans and non-humans, we are witnessing a widespread move toward defending human domination based now on notions of predation and ecological balance. In other words, a new view of the natural order of things is now taken to justify what is increasingly difficult to defend on a criterion of rationality, moral agency, or divine dispensation. Still, we can’t simply throw nature under the bus. If I judge that what Nussbaum calls “a life with dignity” is a moral good, not only for humans but for all sentient creatures, then understanding the natural, species-specific needs and powers of creatures is highly relevant to my ethical behaviour. It seems to me that while this does not at all conflate “is” with “ought”, it means the two are not unrelated. Even this impulse to promote the flourishing of others has its roots, as Darwin argued, in our biologically evolved nature as social beings.

          • Liza Says:

            “a new view of the natural order of things is now taken to justify what is increasingly difficult to defend on a criterion of rationality, moral agency, or divine dispensation.”

            Really? That’s interesting. It’s a shame that you’re not going to respond anymore because I am curious about what this “new view” is. Surely, you don’t think that this is a view that Jim and I are defending. I think we have made it abundantly clear that we are making a negative case against the claim that we have an evolutionary imperative not to harm animals. The question of whether there is some independent moral reason to be a vegetarian separate from the fallacious naturalistic inference is still open. I have expressed my doubts about finding a compelling positive argument for vegetarianism, but this is a far cry from any attempt to “justify exploitation.” As I have noted to you before, I am a vegetarian. I don’t need to “justify” this exploitation so that I may feel better about my lifestyle choices. If anything, I would feel better about my lifestyle choices if I thought a good case could be made that it is exploitation.

            Our objective in writing this blog is to turn a skeptical eye toward arguments and beliefs regardless of political or moral affiliation. Sure, we have our preferences, but we don’t take it for granted that our preferences are objectively valuable or that our intuitions are a perfect indicator of moral truth. This means that we will occasionally bite the bullet and agree that our arguments lead us to conclusions that are unintuitive. It also means that we view virtually all prescriptive claims as tentative, not truths from which to derive a comprehensive normative theory.

            One example of a moral claim that we would eye skeptically is the judgment that “a life with dignity” is intrinsically valuable (a moral good) for all sentient creatures. You might be able to convince me that there is a coherent way to make sense of this claim, but it seems likely to me that you (and I suppose Nussbaum) are simply mistaking a subjective value for an objective value, and making an absurd anthropomorphic projection. It seems about as silly to me as saying that romantic love is an intrinsic moral good (After all, at some point at least, most of us value this much more than our own dignity.) and then reading into an earthworm’s wriggling behavior a similar desire for romantic love (She wriggles, he follows, I’ve been on less engaging dates.), and, therefore, concluding that it is wrong to deny the earthworm the “moral good” of romantic opportunity (It might make a good children’s film.). I am sure that this example strikes you as patently absurd, but your claim that a “life with dignity” is an intrinsic value for all sentient creatures seems to be based on the same faulty analogical reasoning.

          • Alfred Says:

            “If anything, I would feel better about my lifestyle choices if I thought a good case could be made that it is exploitation.”

            Since Jim prefers to deny that animals experience “pain” then I cannot really have a quarrel with him.

            It is a mistake to argue for vegetarianism on the basis of
            animal “rights”—if, however, one assumes that animal’s have a capacity to feel “pain” and “fear” then it follows that vegetarianism is merely cooperation with systematic exploitation.

            “The question of whether there is some independent moral reason to be a vegetarian separate from the fallacious naturalistic inference is still open.”

            What? can’t preference constitute an “independent moral reason”?

          • Alfred Says:

            Note: even if one denies that animals experience “pain” and “fear”—however one chooses to define those terms—it is still the case that animals are systematically slaughtered and exploited, and if one prefers to regard the slaughter and exploitation of animals as, say, an “evil” or as repulsive, then the only coherent stance is veganism—that is, to reject all forms of animal exploitation, and this obviously includes not only the eating of flesh and animal-derived products but indeed also medicines, cosmetics, clothing, the use of animals for labour, sport, education, testing, research, entertainment, confinement in zoos, etc.

          • Jim Says:

            I don’t know what you mean when you say “even if one denies that animals experience ‘pain’ and ‘fear’—however one chooses to define those terms—it is still the case that animals are systematically slaughtered and exploited…” I’m not sure how you’re using the words “slaughtered” and “exploited,” but I’ll assume from the overall tone of your post that you’re using those words in the pejorative sense. If that’s the case, what you’re saying just makes no sense. Can you slaughter and exploit rocks? Dirt? Old tires? I don’t see how you can. If animals don’t have the kinds of mental states we think we might have, then I don’t see how you can apply such concepts as listed above to the actions associated with our treatment of them. Being as you started off your note with the words “even if,” it is clear that is exactly what you want to claim, but such a claim just seems nonsensical.
            Further, I don’t know what it means to say that one “prefers” to regard anything as “evil.” Evil, however you cash it out, and assuming such a thing exists, isn’t a matter of preference. If it is, then someone could claim that they just prefer to view vegans as evil, and that the only way to deal with evil is immediate death, hence they are morally obligated to put all vegans to death upon sight. I’m guessing you don’t think that’s right, and well you shouldn’t. Such things just aren’t a matter of preference.

          • Alfred Douglas Says:

            My use of the terms “exploitation” and “slaughtered” is descriptive merely. Vegan exhortations proceed upon the assumption that animals suffer and that they have a capacity to feel “pain,” and that life is a value. You merely prefer to deny this assumption its cogency, and thus, you quite naturally proceed to regard animals as indistinct from “rocks” and “old tires.” One is, of course, quite entitled to deny that animals are systematically slaughtered and exploited, the same way one is quite entitled to deny the Holocaust or to regard Jews as “rocks” and “old tires”—it is merely a question of what one prefers, and can tastes be disputed?

          • Jim Says:

            I would not deny the Holocaust as there is overwhelming evidence for it, and nothing I have said implies otherwise. To suggest that the position I have articulated about the question of mental states in general and other animals in particular is in any way similar to denying the Holocaust only shows that you do not understand the position I have articulated.

          • Alfred Douglas Says:

            In fact, there is overwhelming evidence to suggest that animals can and do experience a state sufficiently unpleasant to it to deserve the emotive labels “suffering” and “pain”—Singer writes about the three main sources in “In Defense of Animals”—the animals physical health, its physiological signs, its behaviour—the manner in an animal will show gross disturbances of health, of injuries, with symptoms of “pain.” With regard to the debeaking of birds, “overwhelming” neurophysiological evidence indicates that impairments include the bird’s ability to feed itself following beak trimming, short-term pain, in some cases chronic pain, and acute distress—we know, for instance, that the tip of a birds beak is richly innervated and contains “pain” receptors, therefore we can assume that cutting and heating will lead to acute pain. Additionally, because of cutting and heating, the behaviour of debeaked birds is radically altered for many weeks, which, again, indicates chronic pain. Animals also exhibit, as the result of their subjection to torturous and squalid conditions of confinement, unusual behaviour patterns “evidence” of a high degree of frustration, prolonged over much of their lives, with “evidence” of a build-up of physiological symptoms that are known (or rather, assumed) to be precursors of disease. Additionally, innumerable instances have been documented of animals showing every sign of trying to escape from their cages, and indeed doing so when given the opportunity. Singer states that nearly all the external signs that lead us to infer pain in other humans can be seen in other species, especially the species most closely related to us–the species of mammals and birds—behavioral signs include writhing, facial contortions, moaning, yelping or other forms of calling, attempts to avoid the source of the pain, appearance of fear at the prospect of its repetition, and so forth. In addition, every particle of factual evidence supports the contention that these animals have nervous systems very like ours, which respond physiologically like ours do when the animal is in circumstances in which we would feel pain: an initial rise of blood pressure, dilated pupils, perspiration, an increased pulse rate, and, if the stimulus continues, a fall in blood pressure. Shall I continue? The evidence (based on neurological, behavioural, biological and biochemical date) is obviously quite abundant. Singer says “there are no good reasons, scientific or philosophical, for denying that animals feel pain” but in saying this he begs the question of what counts as a “good reason”—and obviously preferring to deny (as you do) that animals experience pain can be sufficient to count as a “good reason”—indeed, distinguishing “good” reasons from “bad” reasons in this matter, as in all matters, amounts in truth, to no more than expressing ones personal preference merely. The question is “what authority grounds the claim that the evidence in favour of the argument that non-humans can and do suffer pain in the same manner that humans do must be deemed inadequate?” and “how can this authority be foundationally justified without recourse to circularity?”

          • Jim Says:

            I get the feeling you didn’t actually read what I wrote. Perhaps you should do that now.

          • Alfred Douglas Says:

            “…I don’t think that you want to do that. My guess is that you want to say that there is a moral fact about whether killing is wrong…you want to say that it is still morally neutral to prefer the taste of coffee, and morally abhorrent to condone the slaughter of animals REGARDLESS of what I prefer.”

            There are horrible people who, instead of solving a problem, tangle it up and make it harder to solve for anyone who wants to deal with it. Fortunately, there are those who know how to cut the knots of sophistry and hit the nail on the head—thus, the question: what objective criterion allows us to perspicuously distinguish “moral reason” from preference? and since stubborn audacity is the last refuge of the philosopher, let me add a second: where might this objective criterion be found?, i.e., how does one determine which moral reasons are “right” and which ones are “wrong” once one knows that they are not mere preferences?

          • Alfred Says:

            “I don’t know what it means to say that one “prefers” to regard anything as “evil”…Evil, however you cash it out, and assuming such a thing exists, isn’t a matter of preference.”

            I am afraid that your counsel (and Liza’s), though so liberally bestowed, is, nevertheless, squandered with little effect. What does it mean to say that one prefers to regard veganism as Evil? It merely means “because of the way I am, because of my dispositional mental states, accordingly, I am inclined to disapprove of veganism.” The assertion that vegans are Evil reveals and is directed by my desires, my dispositions, my “preferences”—obviously, I cannot self-select my preferences; they are a given part of my nature, thus Evil exists, but only as an emotional attitude, as an expression of some non-cognitive state of mind—a desire, disposition, preference, or, more specifically, an attitude of disapproval—moral intuitions are, for this reason, not disputable (since they are not opinions we hazard but preferences we feel) and it can neither be correct nor incorrect to feel them—thus Good and Evil are names that signify our appetites and aversions merely. Indeed, to venture further, the word Evil is merely a rhetorical construction, a mere property of sentences, and sentences are dependent for their existence on vocabularies, and since vocabularies are made by human beings, so is Evil.

          • Liza Says:

            You can’t have it both ways, Alfred. Prescriptive moral relativism is internally incoherent and self-refuting. Descriptive moral relativism (the view that you seem to be articulating above) makes debate about moral action entirely pointless. It’s absurd for you to make a claim such as “if, however, one assumes that animal’s have a capacity to feel “pain” and “fear” then it follows that vegetarianism is merely cooperation with systematic exploitation” if you believe that there is no fact of the matter about what constitutes morally permissible or morally impermissible action. If you believe that all of moral language is simply a collection of ways in which people voice their pro-attitudes and negative sentiments then you can’t say anything of the sort. Instead you would need to say something more like “because I have assumed that animals feel pain and fear i think that consuming animal products is bad.” That’s fine, but it’s not a compelling argument for anybody else to believe what you believe, and it most certainly DOES NOT FOLLOW logically because you are employing moral language that is entirely self-referential. “Bad” in this case is simply an expression of your negative preference, and, as such, there is absolutely no reason that it would follow for anyone else that consumption of animal products is bad. If you want to make an argument that other people SHOULD think that it is bad (exploitative, cruel, etc.) then you are going to have to set aside moral relativism and defend your premises. This doesn’t mean that you can show them to be true in some absolute sense, but if you don’t at least have the expectation that others may find them reasonable, then there is absolutely no reason for you to continue to discuss ethics.

          • James Gray Says:

            Yes, as human beings we make everything up. That doesn’t mean it’s all baseless. Even a pragmatic epistemology can be based on the position that it can match reality because whatever is “true” will work out for us the best. This is pretty much out natural science works. If you believe that fire is safe, that won’t work out so well. If you believe fire can cause damage, that will work out better.

          • Liza Says:

            If moral reason is indistinct from preference, then it looks as though disagreements about rape, killing, and slavery are no different in kind from disagreements about ice cream (or rice dream) flavor: they are all just matters of taste. Some people on this blog have argued for that view, but I don’t think that you want to do that. My guess is that you want to say that there is a moral fact about whether killing is wrong whereas there is not a moral fact about whether the flavor of coffee or the flavor of vanilla is better. Appealing to my sense of disgust doesn’t resolve this issue. It may be the case that I find the smell and taste of coffee to be nauseating, while I find the squealing of a pigs in a slaughterhouse musical and pleasant. I think you want to say that my personal tastes in this matter are irrelevant to the moral issue at hand. In other words, you want to say that it is still morally neutral to prefer the taste of coffee, and morally abhorrent to condone the slaughter of animals REGARDLESS of what I prefer.

            If you are going to argue for that conclusion then you need to respond to two separate issues. Jim has made the argument that our folk psychology concepts of “pain,” “consciousness,” and “sentience,” are a poor foundation for a moral theory because those concepts do not accurately or adequately pick out the kind of phenomena that we believe they pick out. I have made the case that Utilitarianism fails as a compelling foundation for moral prescription REGARDLESS of whether we can have the relevant knowledge of another living creature’s pain. You need to make a compelling case that other animals experience a phenomenon that is relevantly analagous to the suffering that humans experience. You cannot assume that this is self-evident because this is the very topic up for debate. Then you need to make the case that this suffering is morally relevant. Until you do this, it is confusing to use morally-loaded terms like “exploitation” because the meaning of those words is in question.

          • Alfred Douglas Says:

            “…disagreements about rape, killing, and slavery are no different in kind from disagreements about ice cream (or rice dream) flavor: they are all just matters of taste.”

            Thank you Liza for this accurate summary of my position. To assert that “…there is a moral fact about whether killing is wrong” is to descend into the realm of the unintelligible. If I assert that killing is a good, you may not claim I am irrational on that basis alone. Of course, you can reply that you disagree, but how could you prove otherwise? What reason could you give to prove that I am “wrong”? If you ask why “killing” is good, I may reply that I enjoy it; you may then rejoin that “no, killing is wrong”, but if I enquire as to why, you may reply but only and merely with reference to the very moral principles that are in question in the first place (if you are not merely asserting that killing is wrong because you dislike it). Thus, it is always a mistake to confuse values with reasons; reasons may serve values, but the original values are foundationally arbitrary and incontrovertible, and thus, the claim that it is “wrong” to enjoy killing people has no more authority than the claim that it is “wrong” to prefer coffee to vanilla, which is to say that they are both expressions of an individual taste or preference; what else does it mean if you say to me that “killing is wrong”? At most, you could be asserting that I have misrepresented my own preferences, but if I have self-reported my preference for killing (or for coffee) accurately, it is unintelligible to assert that I am “wrong” to like it, and this, indeed, is all one is saying if one says “torture is wrong”: one merely expresses a preference, i.e., that one dislikes torture.

            To assert that “it is morally abhorrent to condone the slaughter of animals REGARDLESS of what one prefers” is to descend into the realm of the unintelligible since “moral abhorrence” construed as a reactive attitude is itself relative to an individual’s desires and values, which is to say that “moral abhorrence” is merely an emotional attitude that is expressive of one’s preferences.

            Doubtless it will never be known whether animals “experience a phenomenon that is relevantly analagous to the suffering that humans experience”—however, one may assume this is so, and thus the argument for veganism proceeds upon this assumption and is, indeed, an appeal to those who take the suffering of animals as axiomatic, i.e., those who regard the torture, slaughter, exploitation, and suffering of animals as “morally relevant.”

            I don’t know what you mean by “morally-loaded”—”exploitation” is, of course, a subjective concept, thus, you can argue that the exploitation of animals is not exploitation but is something else, (but then, what is it?), but then there can be no dispute with someone like myself, since I obviously do not share your (barbaric) preferences.

          • Alfred Douglas Says:

            “I might prefer to rape infants or smother old ladies with pillows, yet I cannot assert a moral reason for these actions based on those preferences.”

            Why not? How about “I enjoy smothering old ladies with pillows”—is this not a “reason”?

          • Jim Says:

            Not a moral reason, no. To suggest otherwise only shows that you do not understand the issues at hand.

          • Alfred Douglas Says:

            “Not a moral reason, no. To suggest otherwise only shows that you do not understand the issues at hand.”

            Well, I say it counts as a moral reason because it is my preference and I enjoy doing it—can you prove that I am mistaken?

          • Jim Says:

            Again, you’re only showing that you don’t understand the issues at hand. Perhaps you should read Liza’s last response again.

          • Alfred Douglas Says:

            What Liza wrote is confused and false. The vegan argument is a rhetorical appeal to those who share the values of ending exploitation, animal suffering, enslavement, and so on. Obviously, how can it be meaningful to say that “consuming animal products is bad” to someone like yourself who denies that animals even feel pain? Of course, I might persuade you to think that eating animals is cruel, barbaric, etc., but because you do not ultimately share my values it would take a lot of exhorting—this is all one can mean by “…makes debate…entirely pointless.” Strictly speaking, dispute is never “pointless” since there is always the hope of prevailing upon one’s antagonist, but obviously vegan exhortations are more effective with someone who is, for instance, a vegetarian, i.e., someone to whom the sight of animal flesh already incites intolerable loathing and disgust—someone who shares my values. Of course, it is provably the case that there is no “fact of the matter about what constitutes morally permissible or morally impermissible action,” however, because of the evidence, I do indeed think it can be demonstrated (objectively) that vegetarianism is merely cooperation with systematic exploitation, torture, murder, etc. This is a conclusion that can be rejected only by those who reject scientific canons of evidence. I can indeed assert that “consuming animals is pernicious” but only to those who share my assumptions and who concur that mass animal suffering, torture, exploitation, and murder is undesirable—I do suspect it would probably be futile to say this to a sadist or to a skeptic like yourself who refuses to accept the evidence, and who rejects my assumptions. If the illusion commends itself to you that animals have no capacity to feel pain, then I would be unable to have a productive discussion—I would need state and then weigh the evidence.

            Let us adopt Liza’s terminology: “Bad” in this case (meaning merely “undesirable”) is simply an expression of my negative preference, and, as such, there are multitudinous seas of reasons that it would follow for someone else that consumption of animal products is also undesirable—supposing the person shares my values, my preferences, my disgust…I could exhort such a person to action, I could instigate, incite, etc.—this is not asserting a “should”—or at least, not a categorical “should.” With yourself, I have no “expectation” that you will find my arguments “reasonable”—the dispute would have to commence on evidential grounds, since you do not assume what I assume.

          • Alfred Douglas Says:

            “…Not a moral reason, no. To suggest otherwise only shows that you do not understand the issues at hand….I get the feeling you didn’t actually read what I wrote. Perhaps you should do that now…Again, you’re only showing that you don’t understand the issues at hand. Perhaps you should read Liza’s last response again…”

            Lord! what drivel you spout! How much easier it is to just admit that anything can count as a “moral reason”! What could be simpler?

          • Jim Says:

            Being “easier” or “simpler” hardly makes it correct. As far as drivel, I don’t know what could more aptly characterize such than to say that “anything can count as a ‘moral reason’,” unless it would be to suggest that such should be accepted because it is “easy.”

          • Jim Says:

            “however, because of the evidence, I do indeed think it can be demonstrated (objectively) that vegetarianism is merely cooperation with systematic exploitation, torture, murder, etc. This is a conclusion that can be rejected only by those who reject scientific canons of evidence.”

            This is just wrong.

          • Jim Says:

            “Doubtless it will never be known whether animals “experience a phenomenon that is relevantly analagous to the suffering that humans experience”—however, one may assume this is so…”
            Why is one warranted to assume what is, by your own admission, unknown?

            “I don’t know what you mean by ‘morally-loaded’…”
            To say that you don’t know what someone means when they suggest that words like “slaughter,” “exploitation,” and, for that matter, “barbaric” are morally-loaded makes me think that you don’t understand the issues you’re trying to discuss.

          • Jim Says:

            “What? can’t preference constitute an ‘independent moral reason’?”

            I would think it would be obvious that the answer is a clear and resounding “no.” I might prefer to rape infants or smother old ladies with pillows, yet I cannot assert a moral reason for these actions based on those preferences.

          • Jim Says:

            I have no idea how the fact that you can’t deduce an ought from an is gets you to “This very fact calls into question current attempts to justify continued exploitation of animals.” The former does not, in any way I can discern, imply the latter. Moreover, I don’t know who you think is saying “It’s great and moral to exploit animals!” I’m not even sure what you mean by ‘exploitation’ here as there are a couple of senses to the word, at least one pejorative and one meaning something more akin to mere use. If you mean the word in the pejorative sense, then I am skeptical that anyone is arguing that it is moral to exploit animals.
            I know Liza already raised the question of “a life with dignity” being a moral good, so I’ll let that go, but the next line of the same sentence says that such dignity goes for “not only for humans but for all sentient creatures…” What exactly does sentience mean here? That’s a big part of the reason I raised the whole discussion about pain. If pain is problematic, surely “sentience” is even more of an issue. Does it means something like consciousness? Because that’s a ridiculously difficult concept to nail down. Here’s what the International Dictionary of Psychology says about it: “Consciousness: The having of perceptions, thoughts, and feelings; awareness. The term is impossible to define except in terms that are unintelligible without a grasp of what consciousness means. Many fall into the trap of confusing consciousness with self-consciousness – to be conscious it is only necessary to be aware of the external world. Consciousness is a fascinating but elusive phenomenon: it is impossible to specify what it is, what it does, or why it evolved. Nothing worth reading has been written about it (Sutherland 1989).” The brilliant Francis Crick has worked on what he calls the neurocorrelates of consciousness. Guess what he says consciousness is: he doesn’t. Instead, he avoids the question altogether. When writing about his effort to find theses neurocorrelates he said that he would ignore for the moment the question of what consciousness actually was. This was because, according to him, we all have some idea of what consciousness is, yet there remains a large amount of controversy over the exact details among philosophers. But he really missed the point. The reason there is so much debate is precisely because we don’t know what consciousness is. The definitions that philosophers attempt to construct to capture what we mean clearly fail as the number of attempted definitions is almost too multitudinous to keep straight in one’s head. And that was my point all along. If we’re not even sure what consciousness is in us, then we certainly don’t know what it is in other animals. We don’t even know where to begin, and it’s entirely possible that, much like phlogiston, the luminiferous aether, or the heavenly spheres, there just isn’t any such thing out there, that our folk psychology is a bad theory, and the theoretical entities that make it up just find no correspondence to anything in the real world. So when you take something like that for granted and attempt to use it as a starting point for your argument, you’ve already lost the game.
            And of course the impulse to promote the flourishing of others is rooted in our biology. That’s our particular evolutionary strategy as a species. We not only divide labor up between individuals, but we also divide it up between groups. We protect and promote the welfare of those in our group because, by doing so, we are protecting and promoting our own welfare. But, if you take that route, then we are in no way obligated to help the flourishing of other organisms. That’s because they are in direct competition for the limited resources available to all of us. In fact, in that case, we would only be committed to protecting the survival of those species which were themselves resources for us to use in the promotion of our own flourishing, and then only insofar as we can exploit them for our own benefit.
            So, are we morally obligated to crush and destroy all those entities which might interrupt the status quo and steal the resources we need for our own survival before they have the opportunity to do so? NO! We can’t read moral prescriptions off naturalistic descriptions. And, yet again, that’s the whole point. You can’t get a moral ought from an is. Ever.

  2. Taylor Says:

    Hi. Thanks for replying. To repeat: Singer is not an advocate of animal (moral) rights, but I will take it that you are using the term as shorthand for being a member of the moral community.

    “The argument that we protect non-rational humans and that, therefore, we should also protect other non-rational animals only holds up if you take seriously this idea that it is morally wrong to harm non-rational humans.”
    Call me weird, but I do take this idea seriously. (However, those who are brain-dead are beyond the possibility of being harmed.) I doubt that we can find a bullet-proof justification for any moral stance we take. My own position is close to Martha Nussbaum’s neo-Aristotelian capabilities-approach rights view. On a mundane level, this means I aspire to do as little harm to other sentient beings as is consistent with my living a flourishing life — and in practice this means in the first place not using animals for food or clothing, and promoting a flourishing natural environment. (And, yes, I realize that I, like everyone else, am up to my eyeballs in animal and human exploitation just by waking up in the morning.)

    Mark Rowlands has made a “Rawlsian” case for animal rights:
    http://www.palgrave.com/Products/title.aspx?PID=305600

    • Liza Says:

      Singer shies away from the terminology of rights, but his argument for “inclusion within the moral community” is itself a type of right. In fact, this is the only type of right that Utilitarians appear capable of advancing: the right (as a sentient being) to equal consideration in the utility calculus. I use the term “animal rights” because it most accurately picks out the set of ideas that I intend to address.

      I can’t comment on Nussbaum or on Rowlands because I haven’t read them, but I must admit that I am skeptical. “Neo-Aristotelian” seems like a short-cut road to the naturalistic fallacy (Does “potentiality” equal “personhood?”), but perhaps I’m jumping the gun. And I worry about the prospects for a Contractualist account of animal rights for the same reason that I find the Deontological account so problematic. The idea of an unbiased rational agent is central to Rawls’ orginal position. It doesn’t just seem strange to take rational agency out of the original position, it seems incoherent.

      Your position seems strange to me. I have no problem with moral theories that require more out of us than we are likely to give, but it seems strange to admit that we are “up to our eyeballs in…exploitation” and then fret about personal dietary choices rather than the political system that supports that exploitation. (I say this assuming that you think that there is some alternative to exploitation.) It’s kind of like being the kindest slave-owner, or the nicest Nazi. Why would you aspire to that?

  3. Taylor Says:

    All I meant was that we are social beings, bound up in intricate webs of relations, which include present and past exploitation of others. I’m not “fretting” about dietary choices; personal behaviour is not divorced from political action and the correct dietary choices seem fairly clear to me, given how I want the world changed. It’s not EITHER change yourself OR change institutions.

    I think a Darwinian, neo-Aristotelian approach goes some considerable way to overcoming the is/ought divide. True, we can never get directly from IS to OUGHT, but if we value our own flourishing (how could we not?), and if we believe that our own flourishing is bound up with the flourishing of others (given that we are social beings) and with the flourishing of the natural world (given that we are natural beings), then questions about the metaphysical grounding of moral values may be academic (in both senses). If I tried, I could probably dredge up a quotation here from Marx about truth and practice….

    In any case, check out Rowlands’ book when the new, revised edition is published next month.

    • Liza Says:

      “the correct dietary choices seem fairly clear to me, given how I want the world changed.”

      What do you mean by this? Surely, you don’t think that your dietary choices have any significant effect upon the state of the world. So, I imagine the question that informs your thinking is not “what will the world be like if I adopt a vegan lifestyle,” (answer: almost identically the same) but, instead, some sort of hypothetical such as “What would the world be like if everyone consumed an omnivorous, meat-rich, diet?” I am sympathetic to this type of moral reasoning, but it sounds much more Kantian than Aristotelian. Or have I misunderstood you?

      I am inclined to agree with you that “we are social beings, bound up in intricate webs of relations,” and that “we value our own flourishing,” and that, generally speaking, “our own flourishing is bound up with the flourishing of others,” and, incidentally, so would a great many neo-Contractarians (David Gauthier’s “Morals by Agreement” is based on this thesis). I think, however, that this rather misses the point. The fundamental question of ethics is not what to do in order to reach mutually beneficial arrangments but what to do in situations in which mutual benefit cannot be acheived. Or, to cash it out in slightly different terms, the ethicist needs to explain why I should follow moral rules precisely in those instances in which it does not benefit me to do so. Saying that it is always beneficial is a philosophical cop-out, and it is also empirically untrue.

  4. Alfred Douglas Says:

    “The question of whether there is some independent moral reason to be a vegetarian separate from the fallacious naturalistic inference is still open.”

    In truth, this sentence constitutes an impotent failure to realize that anything can count as a “moral reason.”

  5. James Gray Says:

    I haven’t read all the comments, so I might be repeating something. One, I’ve never heard of that argument for Utilitarian values. I think of utilitarianism as more speculative. It tells us how to behave (perhaps based on intrinsic values) but it doesn’t have to prove moral realism. Many utilitarians are anti-realists. Moral theories tend to be justified by being better than the alternatives.

    Two, I don’t think singer says that everyone has equal rights. They have equal consideration, but some people’s interest might be less important than others. He claims that higher forms of consciousness might be of greater importance, so a retarded child would then have the same rights as a dog. Therefore, a dog merits some rights, just like we think a retarded child merits rights.


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